“By day Lisbon has a naive theatrical quality that enchants and captivates, but by night it is a fairy-tale city, descending over lighted terraces to the sea, like a woman in festive garments going down to meet her dark lover.” — Erich Maria Remarque, The Night In Lisbon
Portugal has gone from the Spanish neighbor with a chip on its shoulder to the top of international travel wishlists. The naive, theatrical quality is that it’s a city built for tourists. It has everything most want out of an urban European vacation. Scenic, walkable streets, street art, and a smattering of enchanting ruin porn to excite Instagram audiences. The food, the drink, and the music keep people around the Portuguese capital for an extra couple of days.
Filmmaker Fabio Petronilli covers the danger in Lisbon overly embracing its newfound tourist reputation in the brilliant documentary short You’ll Soon Be Here. Watch it here. I implore you to do so before booking your trip. If you follow one tip in this post, make it that one.
Everything I’m recommending here is based on personal experience, including only what I’d recommend to a friend. If you’re the kind of traveler who tries desperately to ditch crowds in a popular city, but also understands that some things are touristy for a reason, then I suspect some of these tips for things to do in Lisbon will be helpful. Boa viagem.
First, Watch You’ll Soon Be Here
Yeah, I know I included a link above, but I think it’s pretty important and I don’t want to miss the scrollers among you. It’s just under 38 minutes and an easy thing you can do to prep yourself for traveling responsibly in a city that’s already seen its scars from mass tourism.
Now to the actual things to do in Lisbon…
Take a Walking Tour with We Hate Tourism Tours
After watching the aforementioned You’ll Soon Be Here, I reached out to Lisbon Sustainable Tourism––an organization featured in the film. They connected me with We Hate Tourism Tours to book a responsible walking tour at just €35. The tour is scheduled for three hours, walking through lesser-traveled corners of the city and stopping at a couple of local joins along the way for a pastel de nata and green wine with a bifana (a Portuguese fast food pork sandwich). I won’t tell you where they take you so you sign up for the tour because it’s an absurdly good value considering everything you’re getting. Ditch the free tours and put your money back into the local economy with We Hate Tourism Tours.
Lisbon Sustainable Tourism: lisbonsustainabletourism.com
We Hate Tourism Tours: wehatetourismtours.com
Drop Your Bags At Inspira Santa Marta Hotel
Inspira Santa Marta Hotel is a four-star property on relatively quiet Rua de Santa Marta – a street that changes names about four times but leads straight through the city center and to the waterfront. I ended up here at the recommendation of Lisbon Sustainable Tourism and I’m glad I followed their lead. The breakfast buffet in the mornings is great with good coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice. They’ll also whip up a cappuccino if you ask.
Inspira Santa Marta Hotel: inspirahotels.com/boutique-hotel-em-lisboa
Super Bock and Apps at Casa do Alentejo
Walk down Rua das Portas de Santo Antão and step into this gorgeous building with obvious Moorish, North African influence. If you’ve been to Morocco, you’ll recognize the riad design. But your mission is to head into the inner-patio for a cold glass of Super Bock and some appetizers to fuel your walking through the rest of the city center and up the hills of the Alfama neighborhood.
Get a City View at Miradouro da Nossa Senhora do Monte
We Hate Tourism Tours starts their responsible walking tour at this viewpoint. Warning: It’s a hell of a walk getting up tot his spot if you’re starting closer to the city center. But all that climbing does get you above the city and offers you a pretty damn fine view in a quieter corner of Lisbon.
Alfama is the neighborhood at the top of anyone’s Lisbon itinerary. But like Venice, it’s surprisingly easy to ditch the crowds by turning off the main thoroughfares (probably with tram lines, in this case). Plus the more stairs and inclines you’re willing to embrace, the more likely you are to find yourself completely alone, surrounded by history and street art. The general tourist crowd prefers the path of least resistance, so just keep your eyes open for opportunities to go against the grain.
Eat All The Pastéis de Nata
Pastel de nata (pastéis for the plural) is a custard treat that’s all the rage these days and has in many ways become the brand of Portugal. The story goes that Catholic monks at the Jerónimos Monastery first made them in the Belém neighborhood of Lisbon, sometime before the 18th century.
I couldn’t help but notice that the bus I was taking to the Lx Factory was full of tourists (the line ended in Belém). So, if you plan on going to where they were created, prepare for a crowd. Then again, I was plenty happy just eating them comfortably all around town.
Drink Portuguese Craft Beer
Search “craft beer” over Lisbon and you’ll find a number of options. In my limited time there, I ended up at Cerveja Canil and Cerveteca Lisboa. Both have a nice offering of booze with slightly different vibes. At Canil, I had their Russian Imperial Stout while watching their run of old Pearl Jam and Foo Fighters videos.
At Cerveteca Lisboa, I indulged a bit more, trying Burguesa’s Scotch Ale and Trevo’s Rolling Dice IPA – both from Portuguese breweries. I also helped myself to a few sips of my wife Melanie’s Velhaca American Pale Ale and Magic Rock’s Salty Kiss gose, the latter at the recommendation of the bartender. They also had a wall of beers and refridgerator, catering to the buy and go crowd. In all it was a nice, nondescript spot to have a few beers in the later afternoon.
Cerveja Canil: cervejacanil.com
Cerveteca Lisboa: cervetecalisboa.com
Shop and Eat at the Lx Factory
Lx Factory sits right under the Golden Gate Bridge-looking 25th April Bridge (formerly named after the Dictator Salazar, renamed after the Carnation Revolution in 1974). The shops and restaurants sitting on both sides of the narrow cobblestone street occupy formerly abandoned factory space and has the youthful creative spirit you would expect of any hipster hub.
For what it’s worth, Lx Factory comes highly recommended by We Hate Tourism Tours themselves (they’re based there) and for good reason. Two of my favorite stops were the Ler Devagar bookshop (clearly probably with iPhone photographers, but do buy a book if you can) and WISH Concept Store & Slow Coffee House where I had my final pastel de nata of the trip. (I found the custard to be less creamy–not in a bad way–than in the more traditional bakeries.)
Lx Factory: lxfactory.com
Snack at Mercado da Ribeira food court
Mercado da Ribeira is a large, airy indoor market with open seating spread throughout the middle, surrounded by food stalls and shops. It’s close to the city center and makes for good snacking and crafty shopping.
Eat All the Food at Lisbon Restaurants
Here’s where I ate and can whole-heartedly recommend:
- Cruzes Credo: Happened upon here during a walk around the neighborhood for my first Portuguese meal. I got pork cheeks in pureed sweet potatoes and it was damn good.
- Canto da vila: Cozy, casual joint in Alfama but away from the crowded streets with a mix of seafood and meat options.
- Pistola y Corazon Taqueria: There was a line out the door of people waiting for this Mexican joint to open up. Expect nothing but tacos. Delicious, delicious tacos. It makes for a nice break from Portuguese food if you’ve been traveling around, as I had.
Like I said, I also ate at some traditional joints around town with the We Hate Tourism walking tour, but I don’t want to give those away. Sign up and you won’t be disappointed with your pastel de nata and bifana.
Watch Live Fado Music
Gonzi, my We Hate Tourism Tours guide, suggested just walking around Alfama and listening for Fado music coming out of a restaurant instead of playing to attend a theater performance. For the record, both are an option. If you prefer planning, you can find plenty of places, especially in Alfama, offering up scheduled Fado performance for which you can buy tickets.
I went with Gonzi’s advice, wandering around Alfama after dinner at Canto da vila. I’ll admit I almost gave up, seeing mostly advertised theatrical performance. That is, until I started to hear Fado coming from a restaurant. The sign out front promised Fado music until midnight. I waited for a break between songs to go in and was greeted by the singer herself. It became clear early on that I’d wandered into a family establishment with everyone lending a hand to the performance, even handing out drinks in the middle of a song.
Now I wish I could share the name of this place with you. That’d be helpful, right? But believe it or not, I failed to write it down and can’t seem to find it again on Google Maps. I guess that just means you’ll have to wander around Alfama yourself after dinner and listen for the Fado coming out of the bars and restaurants.
Busking at Cais das Colunas
If you walk through the city center and keep heading toward the water, you’ll end up at Praça do Comércio (Commerce Square). Cross the road and you’re likely to find someone busking just in front of Cais das Colunas. On a busy spring afternoon, it was a nice spot to chill (there are stone seats built into the sea wall) and cool off with the fresh sea air while listening to some tunes.
Riding The 28 Tram?
The only thing I’d say to skip is riding the number 28 tram. Maybe you can find it running with a light crowd if you come at the height of the offseason in the winter, but it looked miserable to ride each time it passed by no matter the time of day. Our guide at We Hate Tourism Tours suggested trying it at night, but all I could think of was the line I saw waiting after dinner and the sweaty tourists squeezing themselves in with the kind of purpose one should reserve for getting people off a sinking ship.
Truth be told, it looked more like one of those Black Friday shopping videos. A valid point made by sustainable tourism activists and Soon You’ll Be Here is that a means of public transportation meant to transport the public has become unusable by locals and relegated to a tourist attraction. Anyone writing about travel and recommending certain destinations to an audience is culpable to a degree in contributing to mass tourism, but contributing to that mess is crossing the line for me. Make like Johnny Cash and walk the line instead. It’s the same view and you get your steps in for the day.